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Two-Faced TV

Two new shows epitomize what Americans are being fed as reality.

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And you can brace yourself for even more coming your way this summer and fall.

Two Monday-night reality shows that popped up this spring illustrate two directions in which the genre is headed — NBC-TV’s “The Restaurant” and Fox-TV’s “The Swan.” “The Restaurant” epitomizes the documentary approach, while “The Swan” represents the makeover formula with a soup‡on of competition thrown in.

“The Restaurant” — which was a top-15 series last summer in the key young-adult category — picks up where it left off, but this year the drama lies not in whether Rocco DiSpirito will open his restaurant on time, but in whether his financial backer will pull the plug. Six months after opening, Rocco’s on 22nd has turned out to be wildly popular — what restaurant wouldn’t be after six weeks of exposure on national TV? — but it’s losing money. Financier Jeffrey Chodorow thinks it might be because Rocco is a better cook than businessman. Chodorow hits the ceiling when he finds out Rocco spent $9,000 for 5,000 business cards. That works out to $1.80 per card. If a party of four takes one card each after their meal, the profit on the food they ate is gone.

“The Restaurant,” produced by Mark Burnett of “Survivor,” plays Rocco against Chodorow as they growl at each other, scowl at each other and then snarl at each other in court. Meanwhile, 79-year-old Mama DiSpirito is stealing the show. By far the series’ most sympathetic character, Mama seems to be everywhere at once, joshing with customers in the dining room and dabbling in the kitchen, all the while being a lovable busybody. Sure, she thinks her son can do no wrong. What mother wouldn’t?

And speaking of mothers, you’ve got to wonder what part of the gene pool produced the contestants on “The Swan,” which is from the same company that gave us “American Idol.” Fox even goes so far as to bill the competitors as ugly ducklings, and that’s a moment of truth in an industry starved for veracity.

Each of the 16 saggy, baggy contestants gets the works — a coach, a therapist, a trainer, a stylist, a dentist and a team of plastic surgeons. And at no time in the process are the women allowed to look in a mirror. That moment is saved for the end of each show. Two women are featured in each episode, but only one is selected to go on to the finale, a beauty pageant in which one of eight finalists will be crowned the Ultimate Swan.

Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s some sort of perverse twist on the part of the makeover teams, but so far the preliminary winners look more like drag queens than beauty queens.

Both “The Restaurant” and “The Swan” have a certain appeal, and that’s not bad, as long as viewers acknowledge that they’re indulging their darker natures. After all, how did “Gilligan’s Island” make our lives more worthwhile?

Speaking of which, there’s talk of a remake of “Gilligan’s Island” as a reality show. No kidding. Word is that it’ll feature a real-life simulacrum of a cast that mirrors the original — a skipper, a farm girl, a couple of millionaires, a first mate, a professor and a movie star — all working to get off the island. The series will debut on TBS this fall.

So we’ll have to make the best of things. It’s an uphill climb. S

“The Swan” airs Monday nights at 9 on Fox-TV. “The Restaurant” airs Monday nights at 10 on NBC-TV.

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